Network Providers Are America’s Great, Unsung Moral Actors

by Mike Wendy on January 27, 2011

When we frame an issue, simple and clear language represents the tool of choice.  For the conservative-libertarian side of techpolicy framing, I have to say that we have failed woefully in recognizing this core principle when discussing such matters as Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality.  That phrase itself is masterful.  I mean, who could be against that?  Network providers should have pounced on it immediately.  “You bet we provide Net Neutrality.  In every packet we deliver.”  It would have neutralized the ensuing debate.

But they didn’t.  And now the Internet will soon be shackled with new regulations, choking off growth and renewal as a result.

The Professional Left squatted on the purposefully vague term from day one.  Perhaps more cruelly, a preposterous yet residual meaning remained – lacking a counterpunch, network providers were tarred as somehow “evil” villains of society.  Competitors’ spin machines, and the Left-leaning, corporate-hating media took it from there.

Problem was network providers didn’t have a box-top phrase.  An easily understood pitch.  Instead, they had legacy issues associated with being old telephone, cable and wireless incumbents.  Monopolies.  Guilt by association.  Consequently, though Net Neutrality has virtually never been violated, the Internet offspring of those old-line communications companies provided an easy foil / target to those wanting to impose old-fashioned telephone regulations (“consumer protections”) on them.

Net Neutrality is freedom.  The monopolists are corruption.  They and their associates are evil (see e.g., Free Press et al descends on Google), and are a threat to Democracy.  Net Neutrality is the answer to that threat.  Pretty simple math.

So, coming back to language, Senators Maria Cantwell and Al Franken dropped a new Net Neutrality bill in the U.S. Senate the other day.  It allows the FCC to regulate the entire Internet as if it were plain old telephone service – sort of like a blast from the glorious, stagnant past. As to language, I found one term that stuck out prominently in the press release, which accompanied the bill.  In referring to the proposal’s aim to Lilliput network providers into submission, Cantwell said:

“…If we let telecom oligarchs control access to the Internet, consumers will lose…” (Emphasis added)

OligarchsWikipedia defines this as people who are “part of a small group that runs a country.”  I suppose network providers are making some progress here.  Usually the Left calls them monopolists, in a sneeringly pejorative tone.  But, oligarchs sounds, well, less evil.

This got me to thinking that maybe something has changed since the midterms.  In one small, positive sense, the Cantwell-Franken bill seeks to put Congress in the policymaker seat – as has been urged by many on the Right – instead of unelected bureaucrats deciding the Internet’s regulatory fate.  At least citizens can vote the Senators out of office if the idea stinks.

So, that’s good…I guess.

Perhaps more importantly, the other thing that warms me is that maybe, just maybe, the Left is coming to the same epiphany as the President recently has.  That businesses and risk takers – those who judiciously use and nurture private property – play a bigger role in our society than they’ve been given credit.  I mean, where else can politicians go for help on the economy?  More government spending, er, “investments” in nationalized sate budgets, er, “infrastructure” projects?

However one reads into Cantwell’s and Franken’s Internet handcuffing, or the President’s change of heart – that the U.S. must compete – it feels like the Left is coming around.  Perhaps they recognize that their reflexive bashing the teeth in of private property owners, even when they’re “oligarchs,” isn’t such a good thing after all.

Call me an optimist (I’ve been called worse in my life).

This new whatever-you-want-to-call-it presents an important framing opportunity for network providers.  I submit that they can eradicate stock, anti-corporate riffs like “and benefit the public interest, not just corporate interests” (an example from one of our favorite misanthropes, Free Press) if they do just one thing: Be proud and be loud about the way they shepherd their private property to society’s benefit.

Far from being “evil,” they should take every opportunity to testify at the top of their lungs about their moral role in taking risk and rolling out Internet service, 24 / 7/ 365 days a year to almost every big, little and remote place in America.  They should have pride that they’ve delivered the Internet to Americans in an unregulated environment, with uncertain return, all the while dodging unyielding geographic, technological and political obstacles on their own dime.

Has the Free Press, Public Knowledge and Media Access Project, as well as numerous nameless reporters, done that?  No.  Not even close.  All they’ve delivered these past ten years is paper and hot air.

Here’s what else network providers should play up when they frame their message of public service to society.  They –

  • Create jobs, most of which are here on American shores
  • Pay taxes, and provide jobs to Americans who pay taxes, to support public sector services
  • Purchase equipment and other services from American companies, creating other new jobs, efficiencies and opportunities
  • Connect distant communities to America’s hubs and the world
  • Bring Internet services to U.S. schools, libraries and hospitals
  • Keep communities, law enforcement and public safety officials connected during local / national / international emergencies
  • Connect our armed services
  • Help Americans stay globally competitive, productive and prosperous
  • Provide increasingly new and innovative services which Americans highly desire
  • Foster democratic voice here and abroad
  • Provide networked tools that protect our environment
  • Invest in their communities through foundation giving, community associations, in-kind donations and other support
  • Succeed sometimes, giving the marketplace the incentive to compete, develop and innovate
  • Fail sometimes, giving the individual provider, as well as the marketplace, needed information to better serve consumers
  • And, spread the wealth by creating the infrastructure that all manner of edge innovators can add to, making the Internet even more amazing than it already is

No one asked them to do this.  No one forced them to serve.  They just did.

And the thing that’s so crazy about this is, the Internet mostly happened without government regulation.  Through shared commitment and voluntary partnerships.  Through the give and take of capitalism and consumer choice, guided by thousands of engineers, architects, industry bodies and volunteers.  Organically, without a central planner.

I don’t have a problem with private property and profit.  It creates the environment to do all this stuff.  It ensures that resources aren’t wasted and reach their highest use.  It benefits Americans.

And, contrary to what the Professional Left would want Americans to believe, network providers are an integral part of this moral tradition, which has made America so great.  We are exceptional in no small part due to their efforts.

Tweets one anonymous activist in under 140 characters of compressed meaning:

“Senators Cantwell and Franken Introduce #NetNeutrality Legislation, Hope”

Yes.  Here’s to the Hope that the Cantwell’s and Franken’s and Free Press’s of the world someday understand that their embittered attacks against network providers are really attacks against private property and its moral stewards who work tirelessly, in public service, to make America the best place on the Earth to live freely and prosper.

How’s that for audacity?

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